PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

David O. Russell Tells a Great Story in 'American Hustle'

American Hustle is not only about the awkwardly intricate and emblematic fictions designated "Abscam", but also about the stories the scammers tell themselves.

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K.
Rated: R
Studio: Sony
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-12-13 (Limited release)
UK date: 2014-01-31 (General release)
Website
Trailer
"What’s interesting to me is that every day is a kind of narrative -- every day is a belief of how you embrace and live and enjoy your life or suffer with your life. I believe that every movie in a way is about narrative: What narrative is the character telling himself?

-- David O. Russell

"People want to be conned." So asserts Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), by way of not exactly explaining his immersion in any number of swindles and scams, financial and romantic. Count him among those "people" who want to believe in what can't be true, a point made clear in the opening moments of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which detail the process by which he applies his hairpiece, an utterly unbelievable hairpiece that simultaneously makes his case and entirely undermines it.

It happens that Irv -- inspired by the real life real-life Abscam Mel Weinberg -- is preparing for a meeting at New York's Plaza Hotel with an undercover FBI agent, Richie (Bradley Cooper), and New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), each possessed of an equally extravagant coiffure. Between Richie and Irv sits Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), her own do both sizeable and spectacularly red. That each is playing a part is obvious, even if you hadn't seen the pre-performance preparations or their tensions acted out. As the scene is transformed into surveillance video, the stakes of their acts become clearer and murkier: this is the Abscam scandal, April 1978, reimagined by Russell and Eric Singer to consider not only the big egos and stupid mistakes, but also how and why anyone might have believed any of it.

Irv describes his own part in basic, dire terms: "Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad?" He and Sydney are caught up in the FBI operation because Richie has an agenda and al kinds of ambition; they're caught up too because they're caught while running their own con, convincing eager investors to put up money for phony deals. The con is complicated by their romance, into which Richie throws a considerable wrench when he suggests that Irv -- who has a wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) on Long Island -- is using Sydney, a blow delivered while she's locked away in a grim bedless cell for days, vulnerable at that very instant to the agent who is so plainly and cruelly using her.

How and why does she believe either man? Or does she? This is the terrific and unanswerable question posed by American Hustle, which is not only about the awkwardly intricate and emblematic fictions designated "Abscam," rendered in the movie as the reciprocal illusions of professional con artists and politicians, federal agents and mobsters, but also about the stories they tell themselves, their self-images and self-deceptions. All the choices are bad, as Irv notes, but that doesn't mean they're not choices.

This much is both established and undercut at the moment of their meeting, at a pool party where she's glorious in her bathing suit and he's so very abjectly not. The film stages their encounter as a collision of life forces, vibrant, insistent, needy. He sees her as the beautiful object she is, but as her voiceover cuts in -- recalling a similarly excellent shift in perspective in Goodfellas when Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) describes her reaction to Henry's gun -- it's clear that wanting to believe drives her as much as everyone else in the picture. True, Irv "wasn't in good shape and he had this comb-over that was elaborate," but they share a love of Duke Ellington and fictions, perhaps most especially the fictions they tell each other.

Their mutual devotion is sealed in a perfect scene, as he shows of his dry cleaning store, offering her any abandoned dresses and coats she might want to have. They consummate their liaison standing inside a movie rack loaded with plastic-bagged clothing, sweeping around and over them, the sounds of the poly overwhelming and enchanting, so categorically artificial and so too-too real.

The metaphor resonates throughout American Hustle, this notion of life and love based on lies and hopes for better lives, politics, individual and collective identities. (It's a notion lacing through much of Russell's work, perhaps especially in the great film he made out of John Ridley's script for Three Kings, superbly contained in Said's query concerning the "problem with Michael Jackson.") Irv and Sydney embody this furious dynamic, telling themselves stories about themselves and each other because they can't imagine giving up. So too does Richie's supervisor, the exquisitely named Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), who tells a story, or pieces of it, again and again, each time Richie comes to his office to plead for money or support for the great scam he's running. Stoddard's story has to do with his father and ice-fishing back when he was a kid, a story about his brother and his dad, a life long ago based on a set of beliefs no longer sustainable, in the city, in the FBI, in the 1970s.

It's a story Richie spends a lot of time hearing but not heeding, a story whose ending he guesses at repeatedly, but never allows Stoddard to finish. Richie's impatience indicates his lack of imagination, his inability to appreciate the particular rhythms of the telling, to understand. He cons but tells himself he's not, he believes, earnestly and without nuance. By contrast, Sydney and Irv, do understand, in their very different but so intertwined ways, the value of stories, of lies, of cons and being conned. It's a process, it's a thrill, a way to survive and to trust, to make good even when the choices are bad.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.